SARASOTA - After nearly three weeks of desert combat and enough death to jangle his brain for a lifetime, Pvt. Earl Coffey arrived in Baghdad in April 2003 thinking he had discovered an oasis.
It was Palace Row, one of the most exclusive tracts of real estate in Iraq, and not even major bomb damage could dim the luster of a tyrant's decadence. Coffey was among the first U.S. troops to secure Saddam Hussein's inner sanctum, the postwar "Green Zone" now hosting diplomats and government authorities. Its allure was intoxicating.
"It was ritzier than Bird Key," says Coffey, recalling his awe at seeing gold-rimmed toilet seats, 30-foot wide chandeliers, and Swarovski crystal collections. Over the next few days, he sampled one revelation after another: the Dom Perignon champagne, the Monte Cristo Cuban cigars, even the lion's roar of captive pet carnivores.
He watched as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle rammed and collapsed the wall of a windowless bunker just outside Saddam's palace. The building concealed bundles of U.S. currency stacked floor-to-ceiling and wrapped in binding that read "Bank of America."
To a man who had grown up in the bleak shadows of Kentucky's coal mines, staring down all that money "was like hitting the lottery," recalls Coffey.
His career was about to drown in a flood of American dollars.
Makings of a soldier
Today, adrift and troubled in Sarasota, 34-year-old Earl Coffey is worlds away from what he once was -- a trained sniper who took his first shot with a .22-caliber rifle his father gave him when he was 7 or 8 years old in rural Harlan County. At first, he practiced on tin can lids nailed to a fence post 80 yards away. When that got too easy, he began targeting the nails. And other things.
"I could shoot the fire off cigarettes from 40 to 50 yards," he said. "I could shoot the head off a match."
Coffey had other interests, like football. He played linebacker and tailback at tiny Everts High School. But looking back, he says his course was set the first time he picked up a gun. His father was a Vietnam veteran; his grandfather survived World War II.
"I wanted to go to the Army," he says in the cool shade cast by a dying sun off Sarasota's Main Street. "It was an honorable profession."
So he volunteered at age 17. He enrolled in sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga., and took advanced training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Duty sent the small-town boy around the world: Kuwait, Germany, Scotland, Curacao, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, the Azores.
Still a teenager, Coffey found himself in Mogadishu providing cover fire during the bloody "Black Hawk Down" street battles in 1993. "None of us thought we were coming out alive," he says.
Using a .50-caliber rifle, he and a spotter stalked targets from as far away as three-quarters of a mile. By then, Coffey had become a deadly expert, with enough experience to have his own theory on how quickly his targets would die.
"It's all according to how full of rage or how full of energy they are," he says.
A normal man dies instantly. In Mogadishu, he shot a man standing on a balcony 960 meters away.
"I hit him right above the eye ... " Coffey says. "But he walked a good 15 feet before he finally went down."
At age 19, this son of a coal miner and truck driver had come a long way from home and a childhood endured, for a while, without indoor plumbing.
"We had an outhouse," Coffey remembers. "I remember packing water from natural springs way down at the end of the road. Our bath was a galvanized metal tub."
The Army was an escape from poverty for Coffey and the only way he knew to become successful.
But a few years and another war zone away, Coffey's dream would end.
'A job to do'
Coffey left the military in 1999 to get married and moved to Sarasota to be with his new wife, Tammy. Then came the 9/11 attacks. He rejoined the Army two years after he left.
"I knew with my background and my training, I had a job to do," he says. "I wanted to go wherever the war on terror was."
In March 2003, Earl Coffey was assigned to a Bradley Fighting Vehicle idling in Kuwait when his 3rd Infantry Division's (Mechanized) 2nd Brigade got the green light for the invasion.
The unit began drawing pre-dawn fire as soon as it crossed the border. The rookie troops were spooked, Coffey says, "but it was nothing compared to what I'd seen in Somalia."
At least, not at first.
As they tightened the noose around the Saddam regime, Coffey brought the full range of his sharpshooting skills to bear. One especially frenetic exchange haunts him today.
Grinding through an urban corridor, Coffey's unit was ambushed in a free-fire zone. He hit a moving target looming along a nearby rooftop, and realized what he had done only after he went to confirm the kill.
"It was an unarmed kid who looked to be about 8 years old," he said. "Things like that stick with you."
In those chaotic first weeks on the front end, every civilian vehicle that failed to properly brake was a potential bomb.
"I saw an Abramsfire a super sabot round right through a pickup truck, and the woman who got out begged us to kill her while she watched her husband and her children burn to death," Coffey says. "In perfect English, she's saying: 'Why? Why are you doing this? We're Christians!'"
Which brings Coffey to the point, the thing that put him where he is today:
"You're walking through bodies that've been lying around for eight days in the heat, so swollen if you kick 'em it busts. And there's so much blood around you can taste it like there's a penny in your mouth.
"And all of a sudden, you come across $850 million? Do you think you're not gonna try to get some of that home to your family? How is anything wrong with that? I need somebody to explain that to me."
Hiding the treasure
Coffey was with Army colleague John Getz as he prowled Uday Hussein's marble palace. The manse, "about the size of the White House," had been bombed and ransacked by looters by time he and fellow members of Task Force 3/15 swept through. But clearly, much had been overlooked.
Coffey and Getz discovered four locked safes in a ruined office. They cracked them open with hammers and tanker bars. The first three were filled with paperwork in Arabic.
Upon breaking into the fourth safe, Coffey realized the world had just shifted. He was staring down more money than he had ever seen in his life -- $586,000.
Nobody else was there. They were both thinking the same thing.
According to statements made during the subsequent Army investigation, Coffey and Getz said the fourth safe contained $160,000 in $100-dollar bills, British pounds, and Jordanian dinars. That is considerably less than what Coffey now says they pinched. He declines to specify the actual size of his share. What he does say is that they decided to split it up and keep their mouths shut.
Coffey stuffed the currency into meals-ready-to-eat packages and glued them shut.
He might have gotten away with it had he sat tight.
But almost immediately, Coffey started enjoying the perks that only money can buy in a war zone.
From Baghdad, Coffey's unit was dispatched to guard a mayor's plaza and a power plant in Fallujah in the summer in 2003. That was where he got ripped off by one of his fellow soldiers.
Carlos Camacho, former Army private, says it happened because Coffey got careless.
"I started noticing him spending money in Baghdad," says Camacho, who met Coffey in Fort Stewart. "But he really started going through it in Fallujah."
Most conspicuous was the $700 satellite phone Coffey purchased from Iraqi peddlers, along with 30 half-hour phone cards that went for $30 apiece. And there were expensive watches, ice, coolers, sodas, fresh cooked chicken, the envy of fellow troops stuck with MRE rations.
"So I asked him, 'Man, how can you be wasting so much money like this?' And he told me he came across some money, a lot of money," recalls Camacho, who bunked with Coffey in Fallujah. "I thought, 'Wow, good for you.' And he really helped me out, he gave me a couple of thousand dollars for my own stuff. It was our secret. But people started talking about it, big time."
Camacho says Coffey talked often about his family. "He said he wanted to buy a house and a truck when he got home," says the 25-year-old heating/air-conditioning technician from Chicago. "I've got a family of my own now, so I can relate to that."
Coffey sent money home in regular white envelopes -- up to six 100-dollar bills at a time -- sometimes as many as six mailings in a single day. He estimates he managed to slip $25,000 out of Iraq. "But it was all gone by the time I got home," Coffey adds with an uneasy chuckle.
Coffey's luck ran out after he decided to buy a second satellite phone. Upon returning from kitchen-police duty, he discovered tens of thousands of dollars missing.
The purloined cash became a legal issue when the unit returned to Fort Stewart. Under pressure from colleagues in October 2003, a fellow solider stated in an affidavit he took $54,000 from Coffey's battle pack and split it up among friends in Fallujah.
But at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., Pvt. Ronnie Keith tells another story. "I found $80,000 in one MRE," Keith says. "Half in American dollars, half in British pounds."
Keith says he managed to mail $60,000 back to the States. "Letters were the best way," he says. "But I also put some money in a teddy bear. One or two."
In April 2004, Coffey was court-martialed in Fort Stewart, Ga., under Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 103, which outlaws "looting or pillaging" in "enemy or occupied territory." He spent a year in prison, as did John Getz, who was convicted on similar charges.
Keith was convicted for several violations and spent 18 months in the stockade.
Keith, 23, says "I've started a new life" and "I've tried to put it behind me." He is attending college, where he intends to major in business.
If Keith and Coffey have anything in common today, it is a mutual contention that they were never briefed about codes of conduct concerning looting.
"I considered it the spoils of war," Coffey says. "I mean, if that money belonged to Iraq, how could America charge me with anything?"
At the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb with the Army's media office states in an e-mail message that "soldiers are taught about Army values from the first day they arrive at basic training. They know the difference between right and wrong."
Over the course of the five-year occupation of Iraq, Edgecomb adds, only six American soldiers have been convicted under Article 103.
Camacho says that is only because the rest are not getting caught.
"I knew a lot of other guys in other platoons that came across a lot of money, too," says Camacho. "They said they turned it all in, you know, but then you'd see them walking around with satellite phones and eating fresh roasted chicken, and it was pretty obvious they didn't turn everything in."
Allure of the gold mine
Coffey says he was thinking about his wife, Tammy, when he stumbled across the treasure amid the wreckage of Saddam's empire. She was receiving disability checks as the result of a car wreck long before they met.
But Tammy, from whom he is separated today, sobs into the phone when discussing their life together after Iraq.
"I know he loves me, but his eyes are different now," she says. "Before the war, I could look into his eyes and see his spirit and the happiness that meant so much to him. And now it's not there. It's not there. He's empty."
Coffey's parents divorced when he was 11, and his father, Earl C. Coffey, moved away. Today, the senior Coffey says he may have overcompensated by giving his son too much. Maybe, he says from his home in Williamsburg, Ky., that created a sense of entitlement.
"I warned him before he stole that money not to do it," he said. "He called and told me, 'Dad, I've got a plan to get $200,000 out of Iraq.' I said, 'Son, don't do it, they're catching boys who try it, and it's all over the news.'"
The most publicized courts martial also involved members of the 3rd Infantry Division. In 2004, eight troops were accused of stealing millions of American dollars from Saddam's vaults the year before. One soldier was convicted.
Coffey's father says he understands the allure of the gold mine that Iraq had become, for soldiers, speculators and everybody else. Says the Army veteran, "Had I found a cache of money that size in Vietnam, who knows, I might've wound up grabbing a handful because I was young and ignorant.
"But with the military saying all that money is going to rebuild Iraq, well, it's too political. You can't go fighting D.C."
Struggling back home
Homeless, jobless, struggling with drugs, delinquent on child support payments, and spinning in the revolving door of Sarasota courtrooms and jail cells, Earl Coffey says he is hamstrung by civilian life.
And, in an echo of the post-traumatic stress disorder that contributed to the recent death of 24-year-old Marine Eric Hall in Charlotte County, Coffey claims the combat flashbacks from the invasion have debilitated him.
"Fighting war's not hard; living with it afterwards is hard," says Coffey, who maintains a military-tight haircut. "It keeps coming back on you. For a long time I was afraid to go to sleep because I knew what I'd see. You get exhausted by the flashbacks and you feel like you're in a trance all the time, like a zombie, like you're just existing."
Ineligible for Veterans Affairs assistance due to his bad-conduct discharge, Coffey says he turned to Oxycontin, a narcotic he purchased illegally on the streets, to dull the jagged edges of memory.
He says he got "a little carried away," completed detox through the Salvation Army, and insists he is drug-free today. But neither his father nor his wife believe it.
On Jan. 2, Coffey was arrested for trying to sell stolen merchandise to an antiques store in Nokomis.
Coffey has upcoming court dates on theft charges as well as for a battery episode at a Sarasota car lot. He says he has considered skipping town and working the coal mines in Kentucky.
"But if I did that, it'd be the end of my marriage," said Coffey, who has a pattern of ignoring appearances before the judge. "Saving my marriage is the most important thing in the world to me now."
He says he has more than 100 job applications on file locally. Grocery stores, construction, maintenance, all to no avail. He has a buddy who puts him up from time to time. Sometimes he sleeps in the woods.
His father says drug abuse, not unemployment, is Coffey's most immediate problem. "I love Chip," he says, using his son's nickname, "but I can't send him any more money because I know where it goes. When he's in jail, I don't worry about him. At least I know where he is."
Back in jail
Veterans who have received less than honorable discharges can apply for a status upgrade, which could lead to increased benefits. On April 7, Coffey showed up at Sarasota's National Guard headquarters looking for help filling out the paperwork.
The Guard ran a background check and discovered that Coffey had three outstanding felony warrants.
"At that point, it was out of our hands," says Capt. Chris Dillon, Battery Commander with the local Guard.
The Guard called the police. On May 7, Coffey pleaded no contest to two theft charges and was sentenced to six months in jail.
Sometimes, Coffey says from the Sarasota County jail, he thinks about the money he squirreled away in Iraq. "I'm the only one in the world who knows where it is," he says. "I've got the 10-digit grid code in my head."
He says he once had a contact with Blackwater Worldwide who could get him back into Iraq. And Coffey could finally get rich doing what he had trained his whole life to do.
"They weren't talking about security; they were talking about missions," Coffey says. "A $650,000 contract for two years.
"But I don't want to pull a trigger with a man in my sights. I can't do that anymore. I'm done."
© 2008 The Herald-Tribune